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Publishers Letter

Let’s have no more of this carbon pollution nonsense

As we approach the end of the first decade of this century, there are two great concerns: the global economic situation and global warming. Presently, with a view to improving their economic situation, most nations are not doing much about global warming, even if they have signed up to the Kyoto Accord. Ultimately, the economic situation in most nations will improve in a year or so and then it will be interesting to see if there is much action on global warming.

Maybe in a year or so, the seemingly universal panic about global warming will abate somewhat. Maybe the “science on global warming” will not seem so “settled”. Sure, there will always be a proportion of hard-core fanatics who think we are headed for disaster and will always call for ever more drastic action to reduce “carbon pollution”, the prime suspect for global warming. Well, I sincerely hope that these sentiments will eventually come to be regarded as fanatic belief rather than sensible concern based on real science.

For a start, let’s consider this highly emotive term “carbon pollution” which is constantly being bandied about. It only takes a moment’s thought to realise that there is no “carbon pollution” problem. It did exist 50 years ago, when we had steam trains and diesels with smoky exhausts and coal-burning power stations which had less than complete combustion. It used to be called soot. But it is not a problem now, in most countries. Now I know that some people use “carbon” as shorthand for carbon dioxide but it is sloppy thinking and generates worry in the unthinking masses that we are spewing all this carbon into the air. We’re not.

We are burning tremendous amounts of fossil fuels and that is putting huge amounts of carbon dioxide into the air. Carbon dioxide is a greenhouse gas and that is a big worry, isn’t it? Well, maybe. But all these doom merchants who worry about carbon dioxide never say anything at all about the other greenhouse gas which is produced when fossil fuels are burnt. What is that? It’s called water vapour – the same stuff as in clouds. Is water vapour a problem? Definitely not.

Just in case you don’t believe me, consider the combustion of petrol which is mainly octane, C8H18. When this is burnt, the chemical reaction is:

2C8H18 + 25O2 16CO2 + 18H2O

octane + oxygen carbon dioxide + water

If you calculate the molecular weights of the two combustion products, carbon dioxide and water, you will find that there is more water produced than carbon dioxide. But greenies never mention it. Why? Because they have either forgotten their high-school chemistry or they are completely ignorant of it.

The point is that both water vapour and carbon dioxide are normal components of the air that we breathe. They are not pollution. They are both necessary for life to exist on the planet. If there was no carbon dioxide, plants would not grow (more high-school chemistry – it’s called photosynthesis). Without plants, no animals, including us, can live. It’s a simple as that. If there is more carbon dioxide in the air, plants grow more profusely. In fact, it is common practice to increase the carbon dioxide in greenhouses and aquariums to make the plants grow more vigorously.

Alright, let’s say for the moment that carbon dioxide is BAD and must be reduced. There are two ways to do this. The first is to reduce or stop burning fossil fuels, particularly in power stations. The second is so-called geosequestration whereby the carbon dioxide produced in the power station is separated from the other exhaust gases going up the stack (ie, nitrogen and water vapour) and then pumped underground. It turns out that this process is extraordinarily difficult.

One way to do it might be to cool the smokestack gases sufficiently (to -78.5°C) so that the carbon dioxide solidifies (to dry ice). Or you could cool the gases sufficiently to separate the water and then compress it sufficiently to liquefy the carbon dioxide and allow the gaseous nitrogen to separate out. Or another scheme that has been suggested is for the power stations to burn the coal with oxygen rather than air – so that we don’t have the problem of removing the nitrogen.

Whatever scheme is used, geosequestration will use enormous amounts of energy; perhaps 40% or more than is currently needed to generate electricity. Isn’t this insane? We want to get rid of carbon dioxide but we have to mine heaps more coal and burn it to do so. On the other hand, Australians mustn’t use nuclear power (which generates very little greenhouse gas) because that has all sorts of radioactive nasties. Never mind that a large proportion of the electricity generated by western countries already comes from nuclear power stations.

I should note that the term “geosequestration” now seems to have been replaced by “carbon capture and storage (CCS) technologies” which seems to imply that there are lots of ways of doing it. The Federal Government proposes to spend lots of money promoting CCS – this is just more woolly thinking. And to think that Australia might take a lead with CCS and then sell it other countries that burn lots of coal just beggars the imagination. Just how gullible do we think they are?

It is time that we called a halt on all this fear-mongering about global warming and greenhouse gases. The fact is that no matter how many so-called experts forecast that the polar icecaps will melt completely (they might) and sea levels will rise, we just don’t know if this will happen or how rapidly it might happen. Nor do we really know if global warming is wholly or partially caused by human activity.

By all means let us stop wasting fossil fuels, particularly oil. We need to conserve oil for the future. And by all means let us accelerate moves to use more solar power, nuclear power, geothermal power or whatever. But let us not be panicked into enormously expensive moves to reduce carbon dioxide when we don’t really know if it’s a problem or not.

Next time you see some politician or climate expert pontificating about global warming, ask yourself, “Do they even understand basic chemistry?” And remember, “carbon pollution” is not the problem!

Leo Simpson

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